Columnist and animal lover Liz Jones writes movingly about her Romanian rescue dog Hilda.
I first spotted Hilda when I was in Romania, on a story about the country’s street dog problem. I’d seen dogs on rubbish tips and railway lines. Dogs in town, actively being targeted by drivers, who would swerve to hit them. I was with the rescue charity K-9 Angels, and eventually we got to a state pound. This was a place that rounded up the stray dogs, neutered them, then released them back out onto the rubbish tips. Romania is freezing in winter, boiling in summer. There were a few local animal charities, who would put out dry food, but it would generally be scooped up by locals, who would sell it in local markets.
The pound was a terrible place. The cages were over crowded, exposed to the weather, with no bedding or shelter. It was freezing. I spotted a small, elderly dog, slumped in a puddle. I assumed she was dead. I kept pointing at her. It turned out she had been spayed, which is insane given she was, what, 13, 14: every operation earned the vet, nicknamed by locals ‘the butcher’, 20 Euros. So he performed each op as swiftly as he could, on whatever animal he could get his hands on. The pound workers, who thought we were insane tourists, saw me looking at the little dog I’d named Hilda, so she was gathered up, and placed in an even worse concrete kennel, presumably to die.
Well, that was it. I’d had enough. I persuaded a worker to open the cage, and hand her to me for a photo op. I wrapped her in a sweater, and we left, taking her to a local vet where it was found she was suffering from hypothermia, and a raging infection. She was placed on a heated pad, and I expected she would die, although at least she would die in the warm.
Twenty-one days later, I was as Dover, waiting to greet my new dog. She had travelled with a van load of other rescued Romanians, and as they opened the sliding door, I swear she recognised me, and gave me a sideways, shy glance. I scooped her up, and put her in my car for the long drive to her new home in Yorkshire. I’d expected such an old lady – her passport said simply, under breed, ‘Grey fur’ – to just recline on the back seat, but instead she kept marching everywhere, even under the pedals.
Suffice to say Hilda became the love of my life. She was so ferocious, despite only having one tooth, so I soon learned never to move her from her cushion. She was so bright, she knew that if I returned with an M&S carrier bag, she would be able to suck for hours on a pork pie. She bossed everyone in sight: my elderly Border collie, and my two (rescued) Border collie pups. She had no concept she was a pet, or that she should do anything asked of her. On walks, she would just head off, galloping, a determined look on her small, pointy face. Her favourite time was at night, when she would clamber on my lap, and groan with pleasure.
Hilda became quite famous. One stormy night in November, she went missing when I had placed her in the garden to eat her spaghetti (I always fed her separately, so the others didn’t steal her food). I searched for her for three days and nights. I couldn’t bear that she had thought she was safe, and then woke to find she was alone again, with no one to look after her. Desperate, I put up posters of her everywhere: the description was very detailed: ‘Has blonde eyelashes.’
Finally, at the suggestion of a friend, I called Swaledale Mountain Rescue, who told me they only rescued humans. I told them Hilda was better than a human. And so the next day 10 burly men and one woman arrived, with sniffer dogs and walkie talkies, and they found her, on the other side of the fastest-moving river in Europe. God only knows how she survived. I screamed when they handed her to me, wrapped in foil. Hilda. My darling Hilda.
One night not long after, I was about to go to bed when I noticed the sitting room was covered in blood. Hilda seemed to be vomiting her own organs; it was like chopped liver. I rushed her to a vet, and then a specialist near Newcastle, who did a scan. It turned out she had stomach cancer, probably caused by living the first 13 years of her life on a rubbish tip. The tumour had burst. We didn’t wake her up.
I wish I had had Hilda as a puppy. I wish I had been able to look after her longer. She taught me so much. Each morning, once she woke up (she was a heavy sleeper) she would bounce around, front paws waving in the air, so happy to be alive. She felt no bitterness. I felt only love. Her middle name was Perfect.
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